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The New Vid Economy: Making A Living From Crowdfunded Game Analysis

by Jacob Geller on Jul 10, 2018 at 01:00 PM

Almost four years ago, Mark Brown posted a YouTube video on adaptive soundtracks in games. The piece, snappily edited and confidently narrated, could have stood alone as a neat look behind the curtain at the tricks used by designers when creating a musical score that reacts to the player’s actions. However, the quality of Mark Brown’s first video served a larger purpose: a statement of intent. More than 90 videos and 450,000 subscribers later, Game Maker’s Toolkit has proven itself to be a wide-ranging, insightful, and consistent source of game analysis on YouTube.

From the feeling of Kratos’ axe to the secrets of Resident Evil 4’s difficulty system, Game Maker’s Toolkit has remained one of the most popular game-analysis channels on YouTube. A look into The Legend of Zelda turned into an extensive side-project called “Boss Keys,” which went over virtually every title in the series and developed an intricate mapping system to describe the layout of each dungeon. A deep dive on BioShock’s Fort Frolic became a meditation on what creates effective level design.

Brown’s videos are now his full-time job. But unlike massive streamers such as PewDiePie or Ninja, his subscriber count isn’t what keeps him afloat; instead, about one percent of his viewership provides his income through the crowdfunding site Patreon.

Even for a highly popular channel, making the jump to an entirely crowd-funded salary was an intimidating prospect for Brown. “I thought about if my Patreon was at the same level as my current salary, then maybe I could quit,” he says. “But then the thing about Patreon is it fluctuates so much … so I decided if it was double my salary then I would quit my job. And that was what happened.”

Brown is the highest-earning game-analysis creator on Patreon. Earning more than $9,100 a month (or just shy of $100,000 a year after the site takes its cut), he’s able to devote all his regular working hours to his channel. But that’s a luxury most creators can’t afford.

Brown's Patreon Page

Even in dog years, the game-analysis scene on YouTube isn’t old enough to drink yet. There are outliers; channels like Super Bunnyhop and Errant Signal have been producing well-researched content for more than half a decade. But the format has only truly flourished since 2015 or so. Channels like Joseph Anderson, Turbo Button, and Writing on Games have all risen to relative prominence in the past three years.

In 2018, these channels are ubiquitous (I’m subscribed to 63 at the moment), and most have a familiar formula. A particular game mechanic or story beat is chosen at the beginning of the video and analyzed in detail, almost always by a man, typically over subdued electronic beats and footage of the relevant game. Successful channels sometimes have gimmicks – NakeyJakey talks directly to the camera while balancing on an exercise ball – but most stick to the established format.

Predictability doesn’t lead to an easy production, however. A far cry from sprawling Let’s Plays or daily streams, a single video essay can take weeks or months to complete. Sometimes this is reflected in the video length, like the scholarly Noah Caldwell-Gervais, who routinely churns out 30-50 pages of analysis and couches them in multiple-hour videos. More often though, it’s because tight editing and delicate argumentation are required for even a short video.

“One thing you become very aware on YouTube, as compared to writing, is audience retention, which is basically if viewers are just getting bored they'll turn off the video,” says Brown. “And you get very in-depth stats on the exact second people get bored …[I] sort of guide them by the hand through the whole video experience.”

Because even the most prolific analysis channels can only manage to put out a handful of videos a month, living off YouTube’s own monetization is basically out the question. The site provides fractions of a cent per view, provided each viewer watches an ad before the video. This can be profitable for lifestyle vloggers, but not for the previously mentioned creators. They simply don’t get the views required to secure a livable income.

Therefore, it’s vital that viewers make it to the end of the video, because that’s when the creator can make their final request. “Thanks for watching,” they all say in so many words, “and consider supporting me on Patreon.”

Danskin mixes game footage, real images, and hand-animated frames

Ian Danskin’s first analytical video for his channel, Innuendo Studios, was a surprise smash hit. The video, “This is Phil Fish,” is a 20-minute long thoughtful look at the perils of internet success and notoriety, viewed through the context of the (in)famous Fez developer Phil Fish. He contrasts the fame of internet celebrities with bands, stand-up comedians, and cat videos. He reckons with the bizarre and seemingly random phenomenon that is digital prominence.  He psychoanalyzes Fish, and then disregards his own analysis as exactly the same kind of armchair psychology as everyone else that pollutes message boards and comments sections.

“[On the internet], fame is not something that you ask for,” Ian says in the video. “Fame is not something you buy into. Fame happens to you.”

The words are oddly fitting, given the video’s meteoric rise.

“The first day, it got 40 views or something.” Danskin says, “and then I went to bed and I woke up and it had 30,000. And then it had 90,000.”

“This is Phil Fish,” originally uploaded in 2014, is almost the most popular video on Danskin’s channel. It now has 960,000 views. Over the next 4 years, Danskin has uploaded 32 videos on games, pop culture, and politics (often inseparably intertwined). His most complete work is a 6-part series called “Why Are You So Angry,” which deals with the inciting events, rhetorical strategies, and fallout from the anonymous masses behind GamerGate.

Danskin makes about $2,700 a month from Patreon, a little more than a quarter of the intake of Game Maker’s Toolkit. But even getting to that level was a wild ride. Last October, Danskin released a video called “The Future of Innuendo Studios,” in which he laid out two potential courses for the channel; in effect, whether he could make enough money to produce content full time or not.

“Freelancing comes in waves … so I’m still inconsistent.” said Danskin last year. “And inconsistency makes people not want to back you on Patreon, which means I have to keep freelancing, which keeps me inconsistent. And we see how we get stuck in a loop.”

In the course of about a week, the money he was making from Patreon tripled.

“My brain kind of shut down,” he says. “You tell yourself, ‘Oh, you gotta’ do this the hard way. You’ve just gotta’ put in the work and your Patreon goes up little by little.’ ... And then you hit a point where you’re like, ‘Maybe if I just asked.’”

“The Future of Innuendo Studios” has a fraction of the views of one of Danskin’s more content-heavy videos, but it did the trick: His channel is now his primary source of income.

“I’ve lived pretty broke most of my adult life,” he says. “This is more money than I’ve ever earned.”

A graph of Danskin's Patreon, and the spike that made it viable as his income

As time goes on, the number of these channels makes it harder for any single one to stand out. Mathew Dyason started Game Score Fanfare a little over a year ago, and has built a healthy backlog of astute, emotional videos on the power of game music. Currently, he earns less than $400 a month from the channel.

“I started the channel basically because I was miserable in my work,” says Dyason. “I quit my job, and Game Score Fanfare was the project that I gave myself.”

His channel has 37,000 subscribers. It’s a respectable number, but many of his videos struggle to reach that number of views. He’s had a couple of breakout hits: A video on the musical styles of underwater levels has several hundred thousand viewers, and another on Undertale’s instrumentation choices is approaching that. Despite those successes, however, Dyason’s general viewership and Patreon levels remain low – where about one percent of their subscribers subsidize Brown and Danskin, Game Score Fanfare’s Patreon supporters are closer to a half of a percent of viewers – nowhere near enough to live off.

Dyason’s channel is also far younger than the other two, and perhaps just needs a little more time to cement its value in viewers’ minds. But maintaining a consistently high level of quality and output means a time commitment that wouldn’t be sustainable with a day job.

“In the early days, it would take upwards of 100 hours to make one of those videos,” he says, laughing. “It’s probably come down from then.”

Dyason's year-old Patreon

The raw time that goes into creating each video is mentioned by everyone; it’s something that separates them from the multiple-uploads-a-day type of YouTubers. “However much work [people] think it is, it’s probably more,” Danskin says, also referencing 100 hours per upload.

Danskin hand-animates dozens of frames for each of his videos. In a recent video on the music of Fisherman’s Horizon in Final Fantasy VIII, Dyason had to capture footage from the appropriate part of the game, which happens to be about 20 hours into the main story. Brown mentioned that in a Game Maker’s Toolkit on the Souls-like genre, he had to record footage from about 70 different games. What sounds like hyperbole is actually an understatement; the video has 86.

Time commitments are far from the only issues on these creator’s minds, however. There’s an insecurity inherent to living off the continuing existence of a website and the whims of its users.

“The internet is a very fickle place,” says Brown. “People can get bored of platforms, platforms can go away.”

Last year, and without warning, Patreon banned a large number of users who provided sexually explicit content to their backers. Given the ongoing legal struggles between publishers, creators, and platforms, some creators worry that game content could be on the chopping block. Nintendo could claim copyright on any footage of their games, or YouTube could stop allowing links to Patreon. 

“You live in fear,” Danskin laughs. “There’s all sorts of things that can shoot you in the foot.”

Well-known personal brands like Game Maker’s Toolkit will likely survive a platform upheaval. Brown has said that he’s now giving talks at universities, and he’s considering writing a book. But for countless smaller channels, being hosted on a well-trafficked site is the only way they’re staying afloat. And even then, no one seems to know how YouTube’s algorithms work. Some videos, like Dyason’s discussion of underwater themes, might spend days on the site’s front page, while others weren’t promoted altogether.

Brown's custom-made way of charting the design of Zelda dungeons

Despite the insecurity, there are reasons why these creators stick with their work. They don’t have bosses telling them what games to make videos on or companies giving them specific audience goalposts to hit.

“[My backers] are just very supporting about whatever I want to do,” says Brown. “No one is making ultimatums.”

Game Maker’s Toolkit and Game Score Fanfare have both focused just as much on smaller indie titles as on AAA releases, despite the content’s theoretically smaller audience. One of Brown’s best videos discusses how to build a great detective game and includes lessons from tiny titles like The Shivah and aging releases like Discworld Noir.

Danskin has pivoted away from games. In the past few months, he’s released several videos in a series called “The Alt-Right Playbook,” a deconstruction of the rhetorical strategies of internet abuse and radicalization. He hasn’t left games completely behind though; in the middle of this series, he took a break to publish a charming piece on the design and themes of The Secret of Monkey Island.

One of the phenomena defining this era of content on the internet is that viewers attach themselves to personalities as much as the work they produce. Millions of people don’t watch PewDiePie because they’re fans of his horror-game-of-the-week; they do it because they’re fans of him. This loyalty allows crowdfunded creators to experiment and branch out, expanding from the subject matter they originally sold themselves on.

The career is a weird dichotomy; creation is done in almost complete solitude, and then released to be enjoyed or critiqued by tens of thousands. Brown calls himself a “socially awkward introvert,” but his livelihood depends on his audience’s attachment. From Danskin’s first video, he’s been wary of success.

“I really, really don't want my audience to be overly invested in me as a person,” he says. But in this genre of content, that’s almost unavoidable. In retrospect, it’s no surprise that his funders tripled after “The Future of Innuendo Studios.” It was a video in which he dropped the veneer of professionalism, let the audience see the man behind the curtain, and gave them the chance to put emotional stakes in his success.

Mark Brown wrote for more established gaming outlets like Pocket Gamer, and Ian Danskin freelanced and animated. Mathew Dyason studied to be a doctor. But with crowdfunded videos, they’ve each found, at least temporarily, where they want to be.

“Even though things should be much more stressful because I'm not making nearly as much money and kind of digging into savings, I'm just so much happier,” Dyason says. “It's made me realize the importance of being happy.”